The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a stunning example of how fairytales, myths, legends, and all those other things we’ve passed off as nothing more than childish fantasies can be used to tell emotionally engaging and complex modern stories that comment upon all facets of human existence. An immortal (Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus) and his little companion (Verne Troyer) run a traveling show with the Doctor’s teenage daughter and an impetuous youth. But Doctor Parnassus has made a terrible deal with the Devil, and the Devil has come for his payment. The Doctor must find a way to thwart the Devil and protect those he cares about without making things worse for he and his daughter. Slipping between a 19th century England (my guess) and a strange world driven by hopes and dreams (literally), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is beautiful in almost every detail.
I’ve been looking forward to this movie for a while, for many of the reasons I listed in the opening paragraph to this review. I expected it to be good, yes, but I didn’t expect it to be the one film from 2009 that will stick with me forever. IDP (the acronym I will use for this film from now on) is infectious in waya I don’t think anyone ever expected.
IDP is really a monument to collaborative effort. Everything from the cast to the design meld together into the closest thing one can get to perfection in a film whose main actor passed suddenly in the middle of filming. IDP is not flawless. How could it be? There are huge chunks of story that probably couldn't be done without making Gilliam's use of the fantastic in Ledger's absence inconsistent. But, what could have been a disaster turned into something I think I'll remember for decades to come. It's a film I might be willing to pay $20 for when it comes out on DVD, and that's a claim I can't make for most films.
Visually, IDP is not just stunning, but bloody brilliant. Whoever was responsible for the development of the fantastic “dreamworld” did something most films have never been able to do: take something that, to most people, would seem impossible and turn it into something so real, so odd, and so wonderful that it lights up the screen and allows viewers to revert back to that childish, dreaming state (all without playing down to the audience). The way the scenes (both in the “dreamworld” and outside of it) seamlessly mesh together real and fantastic gives IDP a charm, a kind of aura that recaptures the power of stories. You really have to see the film to understand. While everyone is talking about Avatar, I’m focusing all my attention on IDP, because there is nothing quite so mystical and astonishing as a film that can meld the real world with one that doesn’t exist (a feat that no secondary world/universe can ever do).
But what about the characters and the story? The cast works well together, and Christopher Plummer really shows his colors here. I've never seen him in roles that really require him to demonstrate emotional complexity (though I haven't seen all his films), but here he creates a character you love and hate all at once, who is so unimaginably human that you forget that he's an immortal. Ledger is also well placed here, along with the supporting case (even Verne Troyer is lovable, and his cracks about midgets were definitely humorous). The rest of the cast seemed to fit well, but most importantly, I think is the story: a mish-mash of fairytales and myths in a modern (or pre-modern, if you will) world. The story unfolds at a pace that gives you time to think, if you want to, or surprises you with humor or twists and turns. It's like watching a movie for kids with adult jokes tossed into the mix that everyone enjoys (except IDP isn't for kids).
The short version of all of the above is this: see this movie. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an amazing film that deserves more attention than it is currently getting, and you should support it by seeing it in theaters. Forget Avatar or whatever other big movie is out right now. They can't hold a candle to what has to be Gilliam's finest work yet.
Adaptation: N/A (it isn’t an adaptation as far as I know)
Value: $10.00 (based on a $10.50 max)